Illustration: Jenn Kwon

Taking Control of Contracts: What Every Creative Should Know

If you’re like most creatives, dealing with contracts is one of your least favorite tasks, a dreadful but necessary part of business life.  It doesn’t help that many contracts seem to have been written in language from the 1800s that was designed to confuse more than clarify. The good news is, you can overcome your apprehension about contracts with the right mindset and a few handy tips.

Let’s start by debunking a common misperception: that the point of the contract is to protect yourself from a client who wants to stiff you.

Misunderstanding, not bad faith, is your enemy.

Lawyers don’t typically advertise this, but the happy truth is, most people aren’t looking for ways to take advantage of you.  A more common problem – but one that can be just as costly – is that people tend to interpret the same information in different ways.

Here’s an example: Say you’re an illustrator. Your client asks you for a drawing of a runner enthusiastically breaking through the tape at the end of a marathon. No problem — you start the drawing and email it to her a few hours later. She replies telling you that, for someone who just won a marathon, the runner doesn’t look happy enough; would you please redo it?

You’re tempted to say, “Hey, I gave you what you asked for. You never said to make him look ecstatic. A redo will be extra.” Leaving aside the question of whether you want to risk upsetting your client, are you within your rights asking to be paid for a redo?

People tend to interpret the same information in different ways.

At this point, you’ll both think back to your previous conversations.  Your client will remember that time that you told her “Client satisfaction is my top priority,” which of course meant (to her) that you’d keep working until she was satisfied. You, on the other hand, clearly remember her saying that the runner should look “enthusiastic,” meaning (to you) a normal level of enthusiasm. And obviously, you’re right.

But guess what? So is she.

She was unclear about wanting an extremely enthusiastic runner, and you were unclear about expecting to be paid for revisions. This lack of clarity created gaps that you each filled in with facts and information that supported your own hopes and expectations.

Psychology has a name for this phenomenon: confirmation bias. We tend to see and remember things that confirm our beliefs. It’s just human nature, really: when you don’t set and record expectations in advance, you sow the seeds for disagreements later – even when both of you are acting in good faith.

On the other hand, when you take the time to come to a written agreement, the very process allows you to reconcile different perceptions in advance.

When you’re ready to begin that process, here are a few tips that should help:

1. Convey that a clear written agreement is a win-win.

“I don’t trust you.”

Too often, that’s what freelancers feel like they’re saying to a client when they ask them to sign a contract – especially clients they’ve worked with before. They fear they’ll destroy the goodwill that comes with doing a deal on a handshake.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. You can reframe the discussion. Explain to your client that getting it in writing is not about abandoning trust, but about establishing mutual expectations. Present the contract as a summary of your conversations about those expectations. Point out that your client will benefit just as much as you from knowing that you’re literally on the same page.

2. Focus on the money.

Contracts can have so many provisions that it’s hard to know where to begin. But the parts that end up being the most important are usually the ones most closely tied to money. Make sure your contract clearly and thoroughly answers the “who, how, what, when, where and why” around the money. Questions like “What has to happen for me to be paid, and by what date?” “Is there a cancellation fee?” “Is there a fee for revisions?” Take care of questions like these and there’s a good chance the rest of the contract will take care of itself.

3. Make a list of your past problems to check against.

Ask yourself, what kinds of things have gone wrong in your previous freelance work? For your friends who freelance? Make a list and check it against your contract. Does the contract directly and clearly address all of those situations? Are there any especially important provisions that you want to call to your client’s attention? Remember, past experience is the best guide for what could wrong in the future. Use what you already know.

4. Try putting it in your own words.

The big, pompous words you regularly find in contracts can be intimidating and tend to slow down negotiations. If you or your client is stuck on language whose meaning isn’t clear, try rewriting that language in your own words to convey exactly what you want. Remember that contracts don’t have to be written in legalese to be binding – as you’ve probably heard, even a napkin contract can be valid.

There’s a flip side to this, though – if you’re going to put it in your own words, take your time and be precise. You don’t want to end up being bound to something you wrote in haste.

5. Don’t be afraid to push back.

Sometimes your client will ask you to sign a contract with language you don’t fully understand. Don’t just sign it and hope it will never come up again — push back.

The truth is, if you don’t fully understand part of a contract, your client probably doesn’t either. In fact, he or she may not have even read all of it. So when you do push back, you might be pleasantly surprised at how often the response is something like, “Actually, I’m not sure why that’s in there. I’m fine with changing/deleting it.” Sometimes, clients even expect you to push back.

6. Know when to hire a lawyer.

For a small, routine job, hiring a lawyer to look over your contract may not be economical. But when a lot of money is at stake, it’s the right call, especially if there’s something unusual about the deal. For example, startups will sometimes pay freelancers with a combination of cash and shares in their company. This can get complicated and you’ll want a lawyer’s help.

One of the more cost-effective ways of using a lawyer is in connection with form contracts. People often look to the web or ask friends and family for forms, only to find out later that those forms were wrong for their needs – or just plain wrong. If you use a form, make sure it’s from a trustworthy source. Or, hire an attorney to check it over and explain it to you. If you use the same form regularly, your investment will pay off over time.


Contracts don’t have to be scary. By adopting the right mindset and being proactive, you can get written agreements that solve problems before they start – freeing you up to do the fun stuff.

The above information is for educational and informational purposes only. Shake is not a law firm, does not provide legal services or legal advice, and is not a substitute for an attorney’s advice. Please consult a licensed attorney in your area with specific legal questions or concerns. 

More insights on: Clients

Vinay Jain

more posts →
Vinay Jain, an attorney and former freelance writer, is Chief Legal Officer at Shake, an app that allows you to create, sign and send legally binding agreements in seconds. You can find him on Twitter at @jainspotting.
load comments (9)
  • Ingrid R. Johansson

    I have experienced these situations when doing audio work and having to tweek the final product. How many do -overs anre you supposed to do, do these cost extra, what if the client says that they changed their mind…yah have gone through it. I would like to know how to get in touch with Mr. Jain to ask if the Shake app will come out in android, Love the Idea and ease of use!

    • Vinay Jain

      Thanks Ingrid! Glad this resonated with you. Our goal is to ultimately make Shake available on all platforms and devices, including Android. We don’t have a timeline nailed down just yet, but we’ll be tweeting updates via @shakelaw. I’m at @jainspotting and would love to hear more about your freelance contracting experiences.

      • JCfromDC

        I would like you to review my contract (if possible) and tell me in a very few words.. “good”, “bad”, “sucks”, you’re gonna get screwed” if any of the above are true. This is the one I give my clients.

  • Creation_Theory

    I think this is good wisdom when the scope of work reaches a certain threshold and also when dealing direct to business in general, where you will encounter highly varying levels of professionalism in all it’s aspects, but within the advertising industry at least, there just are no contracts for projects where the deliverables are most often a single piece of artwork. But of course, in these cases you are dealing with agencies who commission artwork from contractors every single day of the year and for whom the process and expectations are a well oiled machine [ mostly ].

    I think the real world experience is that you should generally expect to complete 3 rounds of feedback in addition to the initial artwork creation, with each round being of exponentially smaller scope than the last, until you reach ‘final tweaks’. At least that’s been my experience over the last 15 years.

    If you are an artiste and don’t expect any feedback on your artwork, then you really have no business in the commercial world. So, in short – factor this in and quote realistically, rather than try to undercut everyone else, only to find yourself stitched up, over budget and only half way through what turns out to be the true scope of the project.

  • Kunvay

    Great post Vinay!

    We agree – contracts shouldn’t be scary and can be a win-win for freelancers and their clients. One additional tip we’d suggest adding to your list above that can be addressed via contract is the subject of copyright and intellectual property ownership of work produced (i.e., who gets to own the work, or whether it’s a licensed use).

    We’ve found that many times contracts often neglect to address ownership issues especially when payment and deadline issues take front-burner attention. Or sometimes even if the issue is addressed in the contract, it’s not fully understood by both parties which can cause hiccups down the line.

    At the end of the day taking control of the contracting process helps one take control one’s future, and we hope more creatives and freelancers will feel comfortable being in the driver’s seat.

  • mariabrophy

    A contract is the best way to make sure that you and your client are on the same page.

    In your example of the illustrator and the client wanting more changes; I have been down that road, in that exact situation.

    Now all my contracts/proposals specify that the price quoted includes UP TO 3 SETS OF SKETCH REVISIONS and any additional sketch revision costs an additional $150 each.

    This has done 2 things: 1 – makes it clear that they will pay extra if they have us do a lot more work; and most importantly 2 – forces the client to be very specific about what they want and need.

    I’ve been doing this for years now, and not one person has complained about it. Rarely do we ever need a 4th sketch, either!

  • Andi

    Love it! This advice is so valuable. I have been in many situations where not having one ended up causing huge problems.

  • Sandra Harriette

    Do you think it’s necessary to have more than one contract for the same client?

  • Romi

    Great post! Undoubtedly contracts are crucial. In my personal experience, one of the most important problems I was having was that customers weren´t paying me and meeting payment terms. After signing contracts, this changed a lot and I don´t have to chase payments as often.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,147 other followers